A few weeks back, I had the privilege of working alongside coach Marcel du Coudray. We were coaching his pupil - ATP player Marc Polmans - at the Rogers Cup in my hometown of Montreal. Marc was accepted as the last entry into qualifying and got his first top 50 win against Andrey Rublev where he came back from 3-5 down in the 3rd set and saved 3 match points at 3-6 down in the breaker (Rublev was ranked #49 in the world at the time of the match).
While Marc didn’t qualify - he lost his next match 6-4, 7-6 to Bernard Tomic (a tricky player) - he stayed for the remainder of the week and we were able to get a few days of training in prior to his next event.
Given that I always observe what other players and coaches are doing - both on and off the court - I wanted to share some of what I saw that week. Perhaps it’ll provide a bit of insight into how pro players are preparing for matches (and training once they’re no longer in the event). Below are 4 takeaways…
1 - Pre-Tournament PAP & Neuromuscular (+ endocrine) Workouts
I’ve previously written about post-activation potentiation (PAP) - it was an article that decomposed Tsonga’s training. If you’re unfamiliar with PAP, here’s a brief outline - it includes the use of a heavier type of movement (performed explosively), followed by a lighter movement (also performed explosively). In Tsonga’s case, he was performing various weight training movements and following them up with tennis strokes. For example, he would do an explosive bench press action followed by attacking forehands.
The science suggests that performing a heavy explosive action will ‘potentiate’ the subsequent movement to a greater degree than if the aforementioned movement was performed on its own. This is usually best implemented with older, more experienced athletes who have years of training under their belt. For a full review of PAP, I suggest reviewing that article here.
Interestingly enough, a lot of the french players performed a variety of PAP activities during their pre-tournament preparation at the Rogers Cup. For example, Lucas Pouille was alternating between moderate-load trapbar deadlifts, performed with max velocity, followed by various sprint drills and reactive hops. Similarly, Jeremy Chardy would perform loaded barbell bench presses and follow that with a variety of medicine ball throws.
While I still believe that PAP complexes should be reserved for more advanced athletes - i.e. if you can only bench press 30kg, PAP isn’t likely going to help you much - neuromuscular (NM) ‘priming’ workouts prior to a tournament or match can be highly beneficial. I often prescribe a variety of med ball activities, reactive jumps and light olympic or ballistic movements the day before the first tournament match. The key here is to control the volume of work - we don’t want players getting sore or fatigued - we want their nervous system fired up and we also want a hormonal response.
This is exactly what the french players were doing. From my observations, I don’t believe they did more than 2-3 sets of a particular complex. In addition, the loaded exercises were only done for a small number of reps (no more than 3-5).
Of course, these players looked as though they were familiar with all of the exercises and movements as they were executed with a high level of quality. We can safely say that it wasn’t their first time performing them. It’s my belief that NM workouts should consist of actions that players are accustomed to - in other words, they’ve used them in training. Otherwise, there won’t be much benefit.
I’ll finish this topic by saying this; simply from watching a lot of players moving during the week (both on and off the court), the french players were some of the more explosive/athletic players that I saw - Pouille in particular was quite impressive. We can’t say for sure why that is but if their training looks anything like their pre-tournament workouts, it’s likely a contributor.
2 - Pre-Match Preparation
It’s no surprise that pre-match preparations at the elite levels are extensive. Or is it? Not every player goes through a thorough routine prior to the first point. Whether this is due to individual differences, lack of experience or some other factor, I don’t know. What I do know is that there are many players who go through detailed routines the day of their match. Each have their unique differences but in general, they usually follow a similar patterns like the one outlined below:
Arrive 3-4 hours prior to the start of their match. Upon arrival, some players will first begin with therapy - working out some of the kinks from previous matches, a gruelling season or to target a specific structure in need. Others will actually begin with mobility and flexibility activities - many of which are actually static. Remember, stretching before playing is NOT harmful as long as it’s performed with enough time between the activity and the match/practice (usually at least 20-30min). Victor Troicki, one of the most flexible guys on tour, performed a variety of static stretches prior to playing - go figure.
Next, players will go through an extensive physical warm-up. This includes some type of general activity (bike, jog) to get various systems up-regulated - followed by court movements, dynamic/ballistic stretches and then depending on their individual strengths/weaknesses, many will go through jumping and throwing actions. Most will finish up with reactive open-chain movements and then get some final shoulder work completed.
The physical warm-up is usually followed by about 30min of hitting. Some might take less time while others might take more, really depends on the player. Also, many will finish with some additional serving, returning or hand/basket-fed shots - just to reaffirm a particular stroke or pattern that they’ve been working on in practice. This can even be technical - so much for only touching technique during prep weeks...there’s always a time to tweak mechanics - but it’s overly detailed (small, reaffirming cues).
After tennis, some will get treatment while others will get nourished and begin preparing for the start of their match. As their match time approaches, they’ll do another modified version of their warm-up from earlier. It’s not always easy to time this as match durations vary (there are times when players do multiple pre-match warm-ups).
Note - if possible, some will snooze for 30min or so and even if they don’t, there’s always a period where they are dis-engaged and getting some much needed ‘quiet time’. Not only to calm the mind, but I’m guessing some will visualize their game-plan prior to hitting the court.
Lastly, from my experiences, a lot of players and their coaches will go over the game-plan ahead of time - in other words, before arriving to the site. That way, they just touch base at some point during the pre-match prep period to reaffirm the plan and any possible contingencies.
3 - Between Tournament Training
Once a player is out of the draw, they often use the facilities for training until they head out to the next event. So you’ll usually see a full training schedule for a 3-5 day period (depending on when they lose, how tough the matches were to that point and when their next event/travel day is).
In our case, we were training quite hard overall - 1-2 sessions of tennis and 1 physical session per day. That said, the days were managed based on how the player was responding to the previous day’s work - some days were more technical, others more movement focused etc. For us, the key was not to sacrifice focus, quality of movement and intensity. This is a trend that many young players and aspiring pros should take note of. Less and less players are ‘grinding out’ sessions. There’s a certain amount of intensity and movement expression required to compete at the highest level and it can only be done with the proper type of work (and rest for that matter).
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On a side note - after speaking with some of the coaches throughout the week, there is more emphasis being placed on the ability to handle deceleration forces through various joints. This is a primary concern for the hip in most players. Not only does the hip experience a lot of stressors - from impact to shear stress to rotational torque - but must handle a lot of compressive forces. This plays havoc on the hip itself but could affect other joints up and down the chain.
To contest this, players are doing more single leg work to load the hip (both during plyometric actions and with max loads). This isn’t the solution but is now a part of the equation for elite players. Single-leg work that I personally believe is key includes a variety of lateral plyometrics. Obviously tennis players move laterally more than in any other direction (~70% of all movements) - which helps with movement expression on the court. But on top of that, when doing lateral hops and jumps on one leg it forces the hip to be the prime mover (instead of the lower leg, quad etc; as is the case when doing horizontal jumps). To be more precise, getting the off leg in front during some of these jumps improves pelvic alignment, helps transmit force optimally, strengthens the hip rotators and is a precursor to a lot of plyometric and COD work that’s needed down the road.
4 - A Word on Injuries, Preparation and Practice
Andy Murray practiced on the court next to us one morning. It was very interesting to observe some of his routine on that particular day. As we all know, Andy underwent surgery on his hip and has been progressively making his return to singles-play. Before we get into Andy’s routine - and why it’s important - let’s quickly outline the ‘typical’ tennis practice (post physical warm-up):
Warm-up hitting up the middle (ramping up the intensity rather quickly)
Cross-courts (sometimes there is little movement, other times players recover but most of the time, the hitting intensity/speed is quite high)
Change of ball direction hitting (one cross one line or something similar)
Volleys and overheads
Serves and returns
Some point play
* This is by no means how many practice in academy or individual settings, but often times when on tour, this is what many do - of course, they do have different qualities they are working on while doing these drills but that’s not the point of this.
The point is, there’s probably too much emphasis on hitting (gaining timing, rhythm etc) and not enough attention on netplay and the 2 most important strokes in tennis, the serve and return.
Enter Andy Murray. Here’s what his session looked like:
Very light hitting up the middle for about 5-10min
Middle and crosscourt hitting with Cilic with slightly more intensity
Volleys and overheads (beginning behind the service line - we call this the 1st volley position - then moving up closer - 2nd volley position - with good recoveries)
Points with serve and return
The serve and return portion of his practice comprised close to half of the session (35-40min) and seems like it was the priority. Not to mention, Murray wore a GPS tracking system during practice. Given that his strength & conditioning coach (Matt Little) is well tuned in, they are likely tracking a variety of metrics including workload, number and severity of change of direction movements (they have the highest impact on the body), high-velocity running speeds, total distance covered, heart rate and perhaps other more detailed metrics.
If you haven’t already, please read this article by Matt Little - if you’re in high-performance tennis (or want to be), it should act like a framework for how practices should be organized and how on + off-court training should be integrated optimally.
This does NOT mean there isn’t a time and place to do cross-court hitting. It simply means that sessions should be organized appropriately. Is this a technical session? Ok so the cognitive load will be high and the physical load must be minimized (or at least more rest given between balls fed...or do 5 balls at a time then provide adequate rest). Furthermore, how sore is a player from a previous session and what’s in store for the gym? Often times we believe players are unfit, lack power or seem stiff when in reality, they are just harbouring fatigue from a prior session (or more accurately, sessions...plural!).
Lastly, while most won’t have access to GPS data, there are other ways to monitor workload. Not only is it important from a session to session basis but also from week to week and month to month. We now have research backed metrics (like the acute:chronic workload ratio) which have good validity to support their efficacy. If tracked, coaches and players will have a better idea of when to push and when to hold back. In Andy’s case, I’m sure his team is tracking workload closely and my guess is that he’s not quite able to handle 5-set matches (given their data). They are likely building up his workload tolerance over time not only to get the various joints ready but so that his entire body - along with the nervous, endocrine, lymphatic systems etc - can handle the stress of repeated 5-set matches.
Just the Beginning…
I’m really excited to be officially part of Marc’s team and we’ve already begun tracking some basic metrics - both daily and weekly. My hope is to have a few months worth of data to see how various training items are affecting his performance (along with his health & well-being). While I don’t believe research, data and metrics are the holy grail (the coach’s eye can never be diminished), I do believe they have a place in today’s modern game.
Furthermore, I’m really interested in how we can continue to improve various qualities in elite players when they’re on the road for 25-30 weeks of the year. This is something I’ll be exploring in the next 3-6 months…and sharing on this site along with Instagram (follow me or sign up below if these topics are of interest to you).
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